The History

The Eastland Disaster

"I shall never be able to forget what I saw. People were struggling in the water, clustered so thickly that they literally covered the surface of the river. A few were swimming; the rest were floundering about, some clinging to a little raft that had floated free, others clutching at anything they could reach – at bits of wood, at each other, grabbing each other, pulling each other down, and screaming! The screaming was the most horrible of all.” -- Helen Repa, Western Electric nurse

Because the Eastland ran late the prior year (in 1914), the owners required it to be the first ship to depart in 1915. The picnickers, many of whom wanted to be on the first ship to depart, awoke early with excitement. “We got up at 4:30 in the morning,” wrote Mrs. C.C. (Mamie) Kelly, “and left our house at 5:40 to get the 6 a.m. train so as to get to the boat and get good seats.” The excitement and anticipation ended in a heartbeat on the fateful morning of the 1915 picnic.

As the crowded ship began listing back and forth from port to starboard, many thought it was a joke. But when the boat listed over so far that the people began to slide across the floor, panic began. Not only did most passengers not recognize the impending disaster, the master of the Eastland, Captain Harry Pedersen, failed to evacuate the ship. He sounded the alarm, but only after it was too late.

Passengers on the main deck panicked and rushed to the staircases leading upstairs. Sadly, the staircases proved to be the worst single death trap for those passengers within the interior decks of the ship.

George Goyette was on deck when the Eastland rolled and described the experience: “What I saw was exactly what you see when you watch a lot of children rolling down the side of a hill. The entire crowd of men, women, and children came slipping and sliding and sprawling down with a mass of lunch boxes, milk bottles, chairs – rubbish of every sort – on top of them. They came down in a floundering, screaming mass, and, as the boat turned completely over on its side, crashed into the stairs, carrying them away.”

Because the Eastland capsized so suddenly, no life boats or life rafts were launched, nor were any life jackets handed out.

Once the Eastland went over, it came to rest in the muddy bottom of the Chicago River in just twenty feet of water.  Its bow was a mere nineteen feet from the wharf.

844 people perished that day. Some were killed instantly after suffering a blow to the head. Many drowned, and perhaps just as many were suffocated and crushed to death by the sliding people and falling debris.

Of the passengers who perished:

  • 228 were teenagers
  • 58 were infants and young children
  • 70% were under the age of 25
  • 23 was the average age of those who died

Of the 175 women who went home as widows, three were pregnant. The tragedy sent 84 men home as widowers.

While months of planning and preparation for the excursion and picnic led up to the Eastland Disaster, the tragedy itself was, for all intents and purposes, over in a matter of minutes. The rescue, recovery and relief efforts following the tragedy, however, went on for weeks and months – and years – and decades.

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